By Barbara Bazaldua, illustrated by Willie Ito (Camarillo, Calif.: Yabitoon Books, 2010, 145 pp., $19.95, paperback)
Travel back to the Japanese American community of the 1940s and absorb the history of internment camps while reading what feels like a novel. Pick up “A Boy of Heart Mountain” by Barbara Bazaldua.
Told from the perspective of 10-year-old Shigeru Yabu, this book effortlessly takes us to World War II-era San Francisco, then moves to the Pomona Assembly Center in Los Angeles County, and finally finds a home in Heart Mountain, Wyo.
Shig is an astute observer of adult behavior. While attending a wedding reception, Shig sees and feels the adults react to a radio announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor: “No one in the room moves. Men and women stand frozen in position, forks and cups half lifted to their lips … It is as if the voice on the radio has stolen our voices away … The silence seems to grow and swell, filling the room.”
Shig looks to his stepfather Joe to explain what this means: “Joe, who has always had a good answer for all my questions, just shakes his head. There are tears in his eyes. Joe never cries. He always tries to look on the bright side.”
Shig also notices an immediate change in his mother. Distracted, she is no longer concerned about the stain on his shirt, and she keeps looking over her shoulder as they walk the familiar streets home. Shig articulates his own feelings: “I feel afraid in some way I can’t understand, and that makes me angry. I don’t like not knowing why I feel this way, or with whom I am angry.” He fires pebbles from his slingshot.
The next day he is greeted with hostility by a classmate and then is embarrassed by the way his sympathetic Caucasian teacher tries to defend him by stating that Shig is an American. Throughout the book Shig will come to terms with the consequences of being Japanese American. He resents his stepfather’s seeming acceptance of the FBI search of their home. He is uprooted from his home. He has to leave his dog behind. “My life feels full of holes left behind by all the good things that are gone now.” The soldiers guarding the trains they were forced to board make him feel “as if we have done something wrong, even though I know we haven’t. My chest is tight with shame and anger.”
The conditions at the Pomona Assembly Center are pitiful. Shig describes the “shed” he will live in for months. “There is nothing. No beds, no furniture … Cobwebs hang like thick grey scarves in the corners. It smells of grease and oil … A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling. The walls aren’t even complete, just partitions that go three-fourths of the way to the ceiling … There is no privacy.”
The inmates adjust to the miserable conditions at the assembly center and find ways to make life bearable with talent shows, visiting the elderly, organizing a makeshift school, baseball teams, sumo matches and crafts groups.
When news finally comes that they will be sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Shig says a bittersweet goodbye to his new friends. After enduring an endless train journey, his family is herded into an open truck like livestock. Holding out some hope for better conditions, Shig’s family is soon demoralized all over again. Hit by the bitter cold, wind whistling through gaps in the raw pine floors and walls, a potbelly stove with no coal to burn, and hunger from the long journey, the family survives their first night, awakening to find frost on the floor of their “apartment.”
The greatest part of the book details major issues faced by inmates: the wind, the ever-present dust, treacherous snowstorms, the bad food, despair, the divisive so-called loyalty questionnaire, the draft, the resisters of the Fair Play Committee, racism, and death, all set against a backdrop of tension. What will the government do next? The issues are presented in simple terms appropriate for our 10- to 13-year-old narrator Shig. The simplicity of the language makes this information accessible for adolescents yet still interesting to adult readers. The book ends as the family awaits release from camp and an uncertain future in the outside world.
The book is based on the wartime experiences of Yabu, our endearing protagonist, experiences he shared with author Bazaldua. It is illustrated in black and white by Willie Ito, a former animator for Walt Disney Studios, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera Productions and Sanrio.